Being a new tenure-track faculty member at a new school in a new town in a new state in a new geographical region is hard. It’s hard for all the reasons you’d expect it to be (what are the students like? who can you trust as a mentor? what’s the university climate? what do people in town do for fun?) and lots of reasons you don’t expect (strangers glaring and asking you, “do you have kids at home?” and “you wear a lot of black…do you like wearing a lot of black?”).
Being a new tenure-track faculty member is particularly hard when you have a mental disability—maybe always, but particularly as discourses of mental illness and violence circulate due to the (literal) onslaught of recent school shootings.
What does it mean to claim madness in an academic environment where the mentally ill are increasingly blamed and stigmatized by a culture of mass shootings? (A question that doesn’t even begin to address the general stigma of being seen as crazy while in an academic position that so highly privileges intellectuals of “whole,” “rationale,” “sound” mind.)
I’ve had a host of diagnoses for the past 14 years. And while I’ve always been pretty honest with myself about what those mean for me and have (for the most part) been proactive in addressing them, I had never reflected critically on them or thought of them as advantages until I entered my Ph.D. program and found myself completely exhilarated by disability studies.
I read powerful work by incredible scholars and teachers and activists who I admired. I started teaching my writing classes with a disability inquiry. The first time I taught that course, I had a student critically reflecting on his own mental disability. He said, “I’d never thought about it as a disability before, and you’ve shown me that disability can be good.”
It made me realize that I hadn’t considered my own disability as good.
Generally speaking, we don’t talk about mental illness as good. That’s why it’s called an illness.
Or, as Jenny Lawson discusses in her new book Furiously Happy (that’s right, I’m reading a book for fun mid-semester), we doubt whether or not we can claim that identity at all and whether we deserve the help that we seek:
We listen to the small voice in the back of our head that says, “This medication is taking money away from your family. This medication messes with your sex drive or your weight. This medication is for people with real problems. Not just people who feel sad. No one ever died from being sad.” Except that they do. (58)
Even when I was actively suicidal, I doubted the validity of my own mental illness. We are told that mental illness is not the same thing as physical illness (and that mental disability is not the same thing as physical disability), and that’s true. They’re not the same. But they’re both valid.
So I started owning it. As a student, I tried to be realistic about what I can and can’t do. As a teacher, I encouraged students to think critically about disability (and particularly mental disability) discourses. As a researcher, I tried to be upfront about my positionality and the ideologies (and biases) that stem from and align with my own sense of personhood.
And as someone who was researching rhetorics of overcoming (which are so frequently found in discourses of mental disability), this was really useful both for connecting with my research and with my research participants and for applying to jobs.
I knew that the job market would be hard for me because I have a slew of neuroses—one of which involves micro-managing every single thing that I do so that I can feel in control of a situation. For those of you who have ever experienced the academic job market, this is your cue to start laughing at me. The academic job market is rough for so many reasons, and worrying about whether you come off as a sane human being (for me at least) is perhaps the greatest stress. Last year, I decided to invest myself fully in building a strong support system and engaging in radical self-care. I picked up a stimming stone for the first time at the Cultural Rhetorics conference, and then a lovely friend gifted me a smooth glass stone to take with me to interviews. And I didn’t make eye contact with a single person for a single one of my interviews, and I rubbed the stone between my forefinger and thumb the duration of every interview, and I saw people look at it, but I was comfortable. And I said what I needed to say. And I felt good about myself.
I knew, before I even moved away to my new job, that I’d need to find a therapist once I got there. I’m not a consistent therapist kind of person (I’m more of a “my mom just died and I’m dying inside” therapist person). That is, I go in concentrated bursts. But five weeks into the semester, I found myself on the phone with an automated voice telling me “your life matters, but we can’t take your call right now,” and I knew I needed to do something. And I did, which sounds really simple. But it’s not.
It’s difficult to admit your own limitations. It’s even more difficult when you realize that these are things that society would deem limitations but that you consider normal. It’s damn near impossibly difficult when you find yourself in the role of a first-year tenure-track professor who has no idea of the implications of your disclosures but who discloses those things regardless because you literally can’t function if you don’t tell someone.
I take comfort in my students who (for the most part) have carved their own space within our disability inquiry and who have disclosed and grappled with and thought critically about their own mental illnesses. I take comfort in the fact that I have created a space where my students feel comfortable disclosing to me that no, they can’t come to class today because they’re going to the counseling center to address their own suicidal thoughts. I take comfort in the fact that I have colleagues who—when I cry in a department meeting with the dean—tell me it was meaningful to share my perspective. I take comfort in the fact that addressing mental illness helps to normalize it, rather than stigmatize it.
Although, truly, there’s always that worry.
The title of this post (“at least I’m not insane”) is something a student spat at me in class two weeks ago.
Last Monday, a UCA student was arrested out of a first-year writing classroom, handcuffed in front of his class, for making threats on Yik Yak. Lucky for us, he was an idiot kid who thought it would be funny to make an “anonymous” joke. But the shootings at Umpqua Community college, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have been very real reminders of the assumptions we make about the mentally ill as violent, although the profiles of the shooters as quiet, withdrawn, mentally disabled are quickly followed up with counter-arguments that depressed =/= dangerous and that those diagnosed with mental illnesses are highly unlikely to be responsible for mass shootings.
As a writing professor who asks her students daily to be critical both of the arguments they make and of the arguments they consume from the media, this an important opportunity to be critical, to assess arguments and evidence, to avoid sweeping generalizations. It’s also an important moment to acknowledge that there are not simple answers (create a better mental health system! ban all guns! blame the parents!) for complex issues.
At the very least, it’s an opportunity to question and be critical about our own assumptions of what it does and doesn’t mean to be crazy—not as a metaphor, but as a legitimate way to exist in and experience the world, to interact with ourselves and others.